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Sat, 31 Jan 2009

In Memoriam P.J. McG. (1928-2009)

Without alarm or light, silently and abruptly, John Drake awoke.

He sat up and swung his feet over the edge of the bed. The blinds were fully lowered and closed, making the room nearly completely dark, and, because he was still not completely awake, the place seemed strangely unfamiliar to him.

He got up and walked over to the window, raising the blinds to look outside. When he did, he was startled by what he saw: gone were the low blocks of flats with office towers in the background, the normal view out of his window in London. Instead, he looked out down a small hill over a courtyard and public square. Small buildings clustered along the tree-lined winding path that curved down and away from his house. An in the background, a large building with an ornate green dome rose up on the far side of another hill.

A sign outside his front door said simply "6", and underneath it hung another notice, "Private".

As the light from outside flooded into the room, the lights abruptly came on and cheerful, soothing music started playing from loudspeakers which he could not see. Then a female voice began to speak.

"Good morning! Good morning! It's going to be a lovely day in your Village today! The weather will be fair and mild for the Activity Fair this afternoon. Be seeing you!"

The music continued playing softly in the background. On the night table alongside the bed, the telephone rang in a mild but insistent bleeping tone. He picked up the handset and put it to his ear without saying a word.

"Ah, Number Six, I see you're awake, good. I hope you're feeling well. You were asleep for quite a while."

"Who is this?"

"Of course, where are my manners? I am the new Number Two. I hope you will join me for breakfast at your earlier convenience. Do you remember how to get to my office?"

"Unfortunately, yes."

"Excellent! Would you like me to send a car to pick you up? Or can you manage on your own?"

"I prefer to walk, thank you."

"Fine; I'll expect you in thirty minutes. Be seeing you." And the phone abruptly disconnected.

The nightmare in which which he had lived -- for how long had it been? -- and from which he thought he had finally managed to escape, was now back and all too real. He had always believed that he knew enough from his years as an government agent to be able to live quietly and essentially anonymously, and yet no matter where he went or what he did, they always managed to find him and return him to this Village. But it was always best to understand as much as possible about the new leader of the Village, so he dressed quickly and left for his breakfast meeting, startled to see his front door open automatically as he reached out his hand to turn the knob, and then close automatically behind him as he went through it.

The Green Dome was the administrative headquarters for the Village, and Number Two's office was at the center of the building beneath the dome itself. The butler opened the door, nodded in his usual silent greeting, and led the way inside. While the outside and the interior hallways of the Green Dome were of a quasi-government-issue style -- a little more ornate than usual, but still generally bland and inoffensive -- Number Two's office was startlingly different. It was large and circular, with a ramp leading down from the raised edges of the room to the sunken floor. At the center of the floor, rising up from the below, was a large spherical chair, in which sat the new Number Two.

"Good morning, Number Six! Please join me." He pushed a button, covers in the floor opened, and a table and chair rose up from beneath them. The table had two place settings and a steaming pot. "I hope you like scrambled eggs. I believe you do, as I recall from your file." Number Six sat down without comment and began to eat.

"Quiet today, aren't we? Well, that's understandable. As I mentioned, you were asleep for a long time. I was starting to worry that we'd have to send in a medical team. But please, eat, it will help you feel better."

"I am fine, thank you. What do you want?"

"What do I want? Oh no, Number Six, none of this is about what we want. It's about what you want."

"I want to leave this place, and then come back and raze it to the ground."

Number Two smiled indulgently. "Of course, I understand, Number Six, I truly do. I think's been the problem all along. You've never been happy here in our little village, haven't you? And why is that?"

"Because I don't enjoy being kidnapped and held against my will," Number Six interjected. Number Two's nodded and smiled again.

"Precisely! I understand your feelings, and I believe I know how we can assuage them. From the time you first arrived in the Village, your relationship with us has always been somewhat -- shall we say, "adversarial"? Your most recent unscheduled departure was evidence of that. You are clearly unhappy here."

"You have a keen sense of the obvious."

Number Two ignored the barbed remark. "I would like to take the first step to get our relationship going in a new direction." Number Six sipped his tea but did not reply. Number Two waited a moment then plunged ahead. "I strongly feel we have not done our best to make you feel more comfortable, more at home here."

"This is your home; it will never be mine."

Again, Number Two ignored the provocation. He was clearly going to extraordinary lengths to avoid confrontation and argument. "Number Six, is there something we can do to make your stay with us more comfortable, more enjoyable? Do you have any hobbies?"


Number Two chuckled, and shook his head. "Terribly sorry, Number Six, but we simply don't have the facilities. I'm sure you understand. Can you suggest something else?"

"Not at the moment."

"I know, I know. It's all quite a lot for your first morning back with us. But please think about it. I promise if your request is feasable and reasonable, I will personally make every effort to accomodate you. So thank you for a most enjoyable breakfast, Number Six, and let me know what you decide. Be seeing you."

Number Six made his way to the heliport on the grounds behind the Green Dome. And there, waiting for him, was the amazing result of his breakfast meeting with Number Two several weeks before: his car, license plate KAR 126C, a two-seat Lotus roadster. Workers were removing the last swaths of crinoline wrappings from the body; it looked as if it hadn't received a single nick or scratch while in transit. Number Two was busy directing the activities of the crews, finally spotting Number Six as he approached.

"Number Six! Here it is, as promised. I have to say that it took a fair amount of -- persuasion, shall we say? -- to convince the authorities to allow this rather extravagant delivery. But I must say you did work the whole thing out rather carefully. For example, it had never occurred to me that your car would be simply too wide to be driven on the Village streets, which is why your plan to grade out a "race course" in the woods near the north boundary of the Village was a perfect answer to that objection. Also minimized noise and disturbances to the rest of the residents. Well done."

Number Six nodded as the car was carefully loaded onto the back of a small lorry for the drive to the track. A flagman stepped in front to warn people out of the way as the truck moved off, a necessary precaution seeing that what seemed like the entire population of the Village was crowding along the route to get a glimpse of this extraordinary event.

"Thank you. I hope you won't think me too forward if I make another related request."

"Another request? Seriously, Number Six, what could you possibly have overlooked?"

"It's not a big thing, really, but it's something I had been thinking about for a long time. You see, I realize that, as we discussed, my supplies of petrol will be rather limited. So I'd like to do everything I can to stretch them as far as possible."

"Go on," Number Two nodded agreeably.

"I was thinking that if my car was more aerodynamic, it would allow me to drive farther on the same amount of fuel. I would like to set about building a newer, more streamlined body for the car to replace the existing one. I've already roughed out the supplies I would need." He handed a piece of paper to Number Two. "I believe there's sufficient space on the other side of the 'garage' workshop you've built up at the track, and all my tools would already be there."

Number Two muttered as he scanned the paper. "Hmm, fiberglass cloth, resin, hmm. Rather a lot, don't you think?"

"I have never actually tried this before, and so I made extra allowances for errors in the course of construction."

"Neoprene rubber?"

For making molds for the smaller fiberglass pieces. I've been researching the techniques in the Village library."

"Your usual thorough job, eh, Number Six? It wouldn't do to go to all this trouble to bring your car to you, and then have you not be able to enjoy it because of a lack of fuel. And idle hands are the devil's playground, correct? It would certainly keep you occupied for some time. Well, I will see what I can do."

"Thanks. Be seeing you." Number Six turned and started the walk across the Village to the woods, to supervise the final delivery of his car to the garage. He wanted to give the mechanical systems a good going over to make sure there was no hidden damage during delivery. And, he had to admit to himself, he was looking forward to taking a test lap around the track.

Number Six spent much of his time tinkering with his car in the workshop. He spent the first week simply inspecting the car, checking for problems. He also took the opportunity to look for tracking devices or other electronic bugs, even going so far as to remove and look inside the fuel tank, ostensibly checking it for sludge. Somewhat surprisingly, he found none on the car, nor any in the workshop that he could see. Number Six found it hard to believe that this one building would somehow be the only one in the entire Village not subject to continuous monitoring, so he assumed that all his activities were being watched here.

The far side of the track came very close to the Village boundary, and one afternoon, during one of his laps, Number Six deliberately stalled the engine by monkeying with the choke. He paused alongside the hood, then turned and dashed into the woods, curious as to exactly what the Village boundary (which he had never seen) looked like, how it was guarded, and what he might be able to see on the other side. He had not gone more than a few dozen steps when he heard the growling sounds of a Rover, the large balloon-like guards, coming towards him. The Rover bounced out from behind a tree and planted itself squarely in Number Six's way. It was not being aggressive, but it was clearly conveying the message, "No further," slowly advancing towards Number Six, driving him away from the invisible boundary and back onto the track, when it then moved back into the woods and disappeared.

True to his word, Number Two had the fiberglass and other supplies delivered to the workshop a few weeks later. During the wait, Number Six filled his days making exacting measurements and developing blueprints for the new car design. It was a fairly flat and simple design, fully covering the wheels, and leaving only a tiny, one seat cockpit. There was a hardtop which stored in the back of the car which could be bolted over the cockpit in case of inclement weather. And the heavy metal fuel tank was replaced with a series of neoprene bladders, which filled in much of the empty space between the body and the chassis.

Number Six set to work, turning his designs into reality. He created wooden jigs to shape the rubber molds, covered them with the fiberglass cloth, and brushed on the foul-smelling resin. Slowly, each piece was built up layer by layer, and the overall design came together piece by piece. Number Six spent more and more time in the workshop, bringing food in picnic baskets from his house and making tea from the taps in the bathroom sink. Except for the immediate work area around the car itself, the workshop slowly but steadily filled with various pieces of construction debris, chunks of fiberglass from moldings gone bad, discarded wooden forms no longer needed.

Finally, more than a month later, the last pieces were unmolded, trimmed, and attached to the mounting points on the chassis. Number Two came by to see the debut of the finished product.

"It's a splendid job, Number Six, absolutely splendid. It looks like the sort of thing I would expect to see racing at Le Mans."

Number Six grinned wryly. "Nothing quite as fancy as that. And given the size and general condition of the track, there's no way to get it up to anything close to full speed except for that stretch that runs onto the far end of the beach -- it's only there that things are flat and straight and smooth enough to really wind the engine up full. But the big improvement is in the aerodynamics; I expect I can squeeze an extra four or five miles from each each gallon of fuel. A win-win situation."

"Yes, yes, of course." Number Two took great satisfaction at what Number Six was saying. After all, it was he who had proposed giving Number Six a reason to stay in the Village by providing him with his prized possession, his car. The emotional attachment to it not only made Number Six far less likely to try to leave again, but would also, in the long run, make him more susceptible to eventually providing the information Number Two's superiors wanted. No muss, no fuss, and all for the cost of delivering the car, grading the track, building a shed, and providing the other requested supplies. A pittance, really -- and nowhere near what had been spent on some of the schemes promulgated by some of Number Two's predecessors. A win-win indeed, he thought.

And with that, Number Six climbed into the cockpit, fired up the engine, and slowly took the car out into the track for the first time with its new body over the familiar chassis. The first few laps were, literally, a shakedown. Number Six checked carefully as the car drove slowly around the track, watching to make sure nothing was loose, that all the body clearances were correct, that all the changes he had made to the mechanical systems were functioning properly. Everything seemed to be in good order as he drove past Number Two, who stood in front of the workshop waving happily as Number Six went past. Number Six gave the Village salute and gunned the engine as he went by, sending up a spray of dirt and rocks, progressively increasing speed with each succeeding lap.

Number Two could not have been more pleased. Everything was going according to plan. All it would take now was a little patience.

For the next few weeks, Number Six spent his days and early evenings testing and tweaking his car. The rising of the moon each night marked the end of the day's driving -- the track was generally so hilly and twisty that he headlights were only marginally useful, and there were no lights around the course itself, so moonrise marked the end of Number Six's motoring day. On the preceding days,the moon had been waning, and today it was the first night of the new moon, so there would not even be a sliver of a crescent of light in the sky.

Number Six was out on the track, coming eventually to the section of the course that ran on the beach. He down shifted and gunned the engine as he usually did here. Then, rather abruptly, he cut the headlights, and turned out the headlights and turned the car sharply to the left, heading out across the broad beach towards the water. He drove out until the wheels were partly submerged, then hopped out of the car. Moving to the back of the car and undoing the mounting bolts with a wrench he had pocketed, he lifted off the car body and reattached it to the chassis upside down. Again he reached inside, then went to all four corners of the car pushing neoprene gaskets over the axles and other openings to keep the water out. Finally, he pulled out a small, crude wooden propeller and bolted it onto a projection of the drive shaft that stuck out under the back of the car. As the water rose, the fiberglass body acted like a boat hull, and the contraption began to float. Many of the neoprene bladders were filled with fuel hoarded over the previous weeks and months; some of the others were filled with drinking water; and a fiberglass box he had first built as a "learning exercise" was loaded with non-perishable food he had hidden away. He restarted the engine, put the transmission in neutral, and moved a small lever next to the shifter to allow the engine to begin turning the propeller. The car moved quietly into the gentle surf, bobbed up over the waves, and moved out to sea. The stealthiness of the low, small fiberglass body was his first advantage, Number Six thought, making it far less likely that his departure would be immediately detected. He figured had at least ten or fifteen minutes before whoever was watching his workshop decided he had either broken down or crashed and sent teams to investigate. The incoming tide would already have covered up his tracks on the beach. He figured on being able to cruise under power for several days if he used the engine sparingly, and he had enough water and food to go for a week. Number Six planned to cruise as far as he could to get away from the Village; then he would raise a makeshift fiberglass cloth sail on a wooden spar and use the wheels as rudders to continue on course.

There were no signs of pursuit coming from the Village, whose lights were fading into the distance. There were no sounds of speedboats coming after him, nor of helicopters doing searches. Most importantly, there were no growling sounds coming from Rovers moving out in pursuit. Number Six checked his course against the stars, clamped the steering wheel in place, and nodded off to sleep.

On the third day out, the unlikely little craft was picked up by a passing freighter. The crew didn't speak English, and Drake couldn't tell what language the crew spoke, but he managed to convey through gestures and drawings that he had been adrift at sea for several days, and tried to get them to understand that he wanted to see the navigation charts, to see where he had been picked up, and where the ship was going. The captain and the crew all nodded and smiled, but he was not shown the charts, nor was he allowed to use the radio. Instead, he was escorted down to the the ship's infirmary, where the doctor examined him. And during a moment when he wasn't paying strict attention, Drake felt the jab of a hypodermic needle in his neck, then all around him quickly went black.

Without alarm or light, silently and abruptly, John Drake awoke. He sat up and swung his feet over the edge of the bed. The blinds were fully lowered and closed, making the room nearly completely dark, and, because he was still not completely awake, the place seemed strangely unfamiliar to him.

He got up and walked over to the window, raising the blinds to look outside, down a small hill over a courtyard and public square. Small buildings clustered along the tree-lined winding path that curved down and away from his house. An in the background, a large building with an ornate green dome rose up on the far side of another hill.

A sign outside his front door said simply "6", and underneath it hung another notice, "Private".

Posted Jan 31, 2009 at 19:43 UTC, 3502 words,  [/richPermalink